I remember in my hunt a few years ago trying to fulfill my “Gaming Bucket List,” ICO was pretty high up there. Hearing all the praise throughout the years since its original release meant I needed to play this game somehow, as I was thinking I was missing out on something truly special. Before all the HD remakes, tracking this game down was a pain and when I finally did, it was damn expensive. I gave up, but thankfully the recent HD-ification made it almost too easy to pin down and play. So the question remains: does ICO hold up in this new age?
The game opens in a serene landscape with a horned young boy named Ico being sent on horseback to a mysterious, dreadful looking castle off in the distance. Apparently, in his native land kids with horns are considered evil and must be exiled to this castle to stay away from the rest of the the people. Quickly after he is put in his less-than-comfy sarcophagus, he escapes his small confinement. During his escape, he meets a mysterious woman named Yorda who is being held captive in a birdcage. Ico, being the nice young boy he is, decides to break her out, putting an extra body in the escape plan.
Storytelling is very sparse, with dialogue being even less prevalent. Instead of being about major plot points and big reveals, its about escaping. It’s as simple as that. Whether the minimalistic approach is something of your fancy or not, it’s told in such a unique way that it is hard to not wonder what happens. Ico’s relationship grows with Yorda and creates something rarely seen in games; a sense of responsibility and a something to actively take care of.
Essentially, the whole game is a giant escort mission, which sounds horrendous on paper, but in execution, it doesn’t always feel like a chore. Your journey with her, although pretty short, gives off a pleasant vibe because it feels like you are honestly helping someone out in escaping her dark, tortuous fate.
Although I wish Yorda felt the same way. She cooperatives most of the time and doesn’t always get in the way, but some instances made it seem like she was reluctant to trust me or listen to my simple commands. She’ll wander and straight up run away when you call her sometimes. Getting her to climb a ladder can be a way to test your patience because those contraptions freak her out. Ironically, sometimes her inability to listen made her feel a bit more like a real person.
Getting Yorda around isn’t a straight path to the exit. If only it was that easy. As any evil castle can attest to, traps and puzzles are always between you and exit. Some puzzles are pretty good, requiring thinking outside of the box, but a big chunk of them (especially early on) can be downright confusing.
Since it doesn’t do anything in the game to explain the controls or mechanics, it is left to you to figure everything out. A sense of discovery is great, but in ICO, it can be a bit too muddled for its own good. Puzzles regularly require something that isn’t always apparent or highlighted. For example, if you don’t know that you can lift Yorda up or light your torch with the O button, you’ll probably wander around aimlessly trying to figure out something to do. It brings the game to a screeching halt and causes frustration along the way.
Games like Portal 2 do a sublime job of giving you the game’s preset rules and having you play within those certain rules to solve the puzzles. ICO doesn’t set these rules, meaning you don’t always know what can be interacted with and what objects can cooperate and influence each other. I spent many minutes wandering around various areas before I would look at a FAQ online or leave and come back a different day. Some puzzles aren’t bad, but I rarely felt smart for getting the end.
Although sometimes figuring out what to do isn’t the problem. Controls aren’t always on your side in ICO. Platforming plays a respectable role within the game’s elements, but it is rarely satisfying. Ico jumps awkwardly and sporadically, making it difficult to predict where you will land. The fixed camera is surprisingly competent in most scenarios, but when lining up a jump, it always seems like a leap of faith. Sometimes you’ll nail it, but most times you’ll have to scrape your remains from the beautiful castle floors. Other small quibbles like lining up a jump to a pipe and stumbling on edges (forcing you to pull yourself up) just make moving around that much worse. It’s isn’t abysmal, but it always seems to fight you.
The Darkness (not that Darkness), however, does does always fight you. Dark holes will periodically sprout from the ground, spawning the demons sacrificed to the castle. They don’t much care for you, mostly because Yorda is always on their menu. Defending her is easy, but it can fall into small bouts of tedium. Combat only consists of one button and it can be a little sluggish because of Ico’s inability to move quickly and strike. It’s simple and changes up the pace, but it never became something I enjoyed doing.
I didn’t play ICO when it originally came out on the PS2, so I don’t have a frame of reference of how much the graphics hold up. However, I don’t think I need one; ICO HD is flat-out gorgeous. Environments are gigantic in scale and maintain a level of quality that shouldn’t even be possible in a game that was released over a decade ago. Everything in the castle looks stunning along with the jungles resting on the horizon just outside of the walls. Touching it up in high definition definitely helps this game age more gracefully, but the art style is truly timeless. I bet that in another ten years, this ICO HD‘s graphics will still be highly regarded .
The visual style pretty vibrant, but the sound design takes the direct opposite approach. Very little music is played throughout this journey, something that helps you soak in how alone you are. Ambient sound effects like birds chirping, waves crashing, and footsteps are the some of the few audible noises coming from the game, giving off a sense of wonder. Very few games can nail the “less-is-more” approach to music, but ICO nails it.
Despite all of the bad and good things I’ve said about ICO HD, I wouldn’t consider it “fun” in the traditional sense. The combat is shallow, the platforming leaves much to be desired, and the puzzles can be overly confusing due to the lack of direction, meaning most parts where you actually play ICO can feel a tad unrewarding. However, as corny as this sounds, ICO is more of an experience over anything. Nothing can quite compare to it from its odd, isolationist storytelling to its unique sense of place to its cooperative mechanics with the stingy Yorda. Games just don’t come out like this very often, so even if playing ICO HD doesn’t fire off your pleasure receptors in the most conventional of ways, it is still worth trying out.
+Strikingly beautiful game
+Wonderful sense of place and isolation
-Absolutely no help
-Yorda can be unwilling to cooperate
-Game elements don’t come together
Final Score: 8/10